“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:9-13).
Notice the difference
The proud (he claims superior status)
- some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else
- one a Pharisee
- stood up and prayed about himself (or standing by himself, praying)
- thanks God for his state of being righteous
- returned home without being just before God
- all who exalt themselves…
The humble (he hakes no claim to status)
- “everybody else” among those looked down on
- the other – a tax collector
- stood at a distance
- would not even look up to heaven, but beat his chest
- addressed God as a sinner requesting mercy (reconciliation)
- returned home justified before God
- All who humble themselves…
A closer look
Jesus began with a broader application before focusing on the Pharisee as the proud person. Although He used the Pharisee in His story, many others were guilty of being self-righteous and condescending toward others. Jesus spoke to them (not about them to others) and described his target audience as a group of self-possessed people who thought they could please God apart from divine mercy.
Jesus addressed an alarmingly common human behavior of validating a sense of superiority through disdain for others. The proud nourish their self-righteous egos on a comparative and condemning analysis of others.
But before the story turns to the Pharisee, don’t forget that the disciples demonstrated similar tendencies (ego-building on comparative analysis and disdain for others). Not much earlier we discover that,
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48).
Jesus’ aim was “not designed so much around identifying as the culprit a particular Jewish group as to identify… a set of dispositions and commitments that generate practices, perceptions, and attitudes that are set in opposition to the way of the kingdom of God.”
The Lord’s purpose is “to warn against a particular way of comporting oneself in light of the present and impending reign of God” (Joel Green, Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 646).
The setting for the story
I am intrigued by the setting for the story. “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” (v. 10). “Up” signifies the Jerusalem temple, a cultural center for Jewish life. This was a place structured around segregation of people. It had courts for Jews and gentiles, for men and women, for priests and non-priests, for clean and unclean. Although these were distinctions with a history of divine instruction, they were no intended as a basis for self-righteousness and disdain of others.
The two men in Jesus’ story were complete opposites in social status: The one a Pharisee; The other a tax collector (v. 10).
One a Pharisee:
“Pharisees were highly respected among most Jews and would have been considered righteous, scrupulous in their efforts to obey God. Their directions for worship, prayer, and righteous living had heavy influence on Jewish religious culture. The Pharisee in this parable goes beyond all requirements of the Law. Fasting was required of Jews only on the Day of Atonement. As the Bible attests, people facing crises would also fast, and particularly godly people would fast more frequently. In fasting twice a week, apparently on Monday and Thursday, the Pharisee probably viewed himself as fasting to make atonement for all of Israel. In tithing all he acquired, he tithed items he purchased that other people should have already tithed” (Stories With Intent, Klyne Snodgrass, pp. 467-468).
More descriptions of Pharisees:
- “Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. (Luke 11:39)
- “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces (Luke 11:43).
- “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight (Luke 16:14-15).
The other a tax collector:
“If Pharisees were respected, attitudes toward tax collectors were close to the opposite end of the spectrum. Tax collectors bid for and purchased the right to collect taxes for a specific region, and various kinds of taxes were levied: poll taxes, land taxes, toll charges on travel and the transportation of goods from one region to another, sales taxes, and inheritance taxes. What tax collectors and toll collectors raised beyond their contracts was sheer profit. At least in Judea, Jewish tax collectors— and the tax collector in the parable is certainly Jewish—were considered traitors because they had contracted with the ruling powers to collect taxes and tolls or were underlings hired by such people to make the actual collections… Attitudes toward tax collectors and especially toll collectors were quite negative. Such people were notorious for dishonesty and in the Mishnah are classified with murderers and robbers… Modern readers must grasp how surprising and stunning for Jesus’ hearers it would have been that the tax collector was the one declared to be in the right. That would contravene everything they knew (Stories With Intent, Klyne Snodgrass, pp. 467-468).
- His posture (standing)—a separatist—stands alone – separates himself.
- His prayer (long) is self-commending and based on comparative disdain (views himself as separate). He supports his self-confessed honor at the expense of the tax collector. He uses those “other” people not in his camp to build his case. (otherness, not equality)
The Tax collector—
- His posture (distant)—among the “everybody else” the pharisee looked down on; views himself as separated (stood at a distance), averting his eyes and beating his chest—displays of humility and shame.
- His Prayer (short) Requests divine favor– “God, have mercy on me, a (the) sinner.” The language and location of this prayer (in the temple) imply that he is seeking reconciliation with God. The original language includes a definite article: “the” (see NASB) and probably is designed to picture the tax collector as accepting the derogatory label given to him by the self-righteous: “The sinner.”
“Jesus’ reading of this parable treats these two men in a way that idealizes one quality in each: One claims superior status for himself by comparing himself with and separating himself from others; the other makes no claims to status at all, but acknowledges his position as a sinner who can take refuge only in the beneficence of God.” (Joel Green, Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 649)
The verdict “I tell you, this man…” (verse 14a—
“It is true that the tax-collector does not show ‘works of repentance’, e.g. in restoring ill-gotten wealth, and therefore the Pharisees would have disagreed with Jesus that he was justified by God, but Jesus’ lesson is precisely that the attitude of the heart is ultimately what matters, and justification depends on the mercy of God to the penitent rather than upon works which might be thought to earn God’s favour; when Zacchaeus restores his ill-gotten gains—a responsibility from which he is not excused!—this follows his acceptance by Jesus and does not preceed it (Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text: New International Greek Testament Commentary, I. H. Marshal, p. 681)
In this parable, Jesus: “contrasts the behaviour of two characters, a Pharisee who is conscious of his own righteousness which went beyond the requirements of the OT law, and knew that he was better than other men; and a tax-collector who was conscious of his sin and could only plead for divine mercy. Jesus pronounces authoritatively that it is the latter who is accepted by God, and not the former. God accepts the humble and needy, and not the proud and disdainful. In other words, the point is that even tax-collectors are accepted by God… (Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text: New International Greek Testament Commentary, I. H. Marshal, p. 677)
Wait a minute!
This can’t be! I could hear the disciples say, “Our whole system works the other way!” That’s the point! Without skipping a beat and with no apparent change of setting implied, notice Luke 18:15-17.
“People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:15-17).
“Although it is easy to romanticize about children,… such qualities as ‘innocence,’ ‘openness to the future,’ and ‘trusting’ are not the first ones that come to mind when reviewing general perceptions of children in the first century. …children were viewed as ‘not adults.’ They might be valued for their present or future contribution to the family business, especially in an agricultural context, but otherwise they possessed little if any intrinsic value as human beings. Luke’s phrase “even infants” draws attention to the particular vulnerability of the smallest children. Little children,” on the other hand, translates a term used for household slaves and children, those maintained in a relationship of subordination in a Greco-Roman household. Against this cultural horizon, the response of the disciples is easily understood, even justifiable. Why should Jesus’ time be taken up with persons of such little importance, especially when a ‘ruler’ was waiting in the wings (v. 18)?” (Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Joel Green).
Receiving the Kingdom:
“…receiving the kingdom” is intimately tied to “receiving little children.” That is, the wording of verse 17 masks an ellipsis: ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as one receives a little child will never enter it.’ ‘Receiving little children ‘s tantamount to granting them hospitality, performing for them actions (washing of feet, kiss of greeting, and anointing the head—7:44-46) normally reserved for those of equal or higher status. Jesus is asking his followers to embrace a topsy-turvy system of values and to extend respectful service to that social group most often overlooked.”
“The rationale for such behavior is straightforward. It grows out of a transformed sense of the way the world works, one based on the power of the kingdom of God to deconstruct those worldly systems and values that stand in opposition to God’s project. In this light, the action of the disciples is all the more self-indicting. Jesus “rebukes” whatever contests God’s redemptive purpose; as they rebuke those bringing children to Jesus, the disciples find themselves contesting the divine purpose, demonstrating their complete incomprehension concerning the nature of God’s project.” (Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Joel Green, , pp. 651-652).
Think about this:
“Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous’” (Luke 14:12-14).
“Failing to understand how the in-breaking kingdom undermines and supplants conventional canons of honor and status, the disciples fail to grasp God’s concern for those held in lowest regard, fail to comport themselves with humility so as to share that concern, and fail to function as Jesus’ agents. Having refused to extend respectful service to the socially marginalized, having misconstrued the nature of the kingdom, how will they ever enter it?” (Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Joel Green, pp. 651-652).